A superhero riding a lightning bolt with comic panels in the background.

Cover of Super Weird Heroes by Craig Yoe

Craig Yoe is the living definition of the wild and crazy archivist-annotator in the pursuit of the strange, nay, inexplicable qualities of the forgotten pulp culture of the golden age of comics.  That is to say, of the (arguably) Jewish Age of comic art, its creators drew largely from the blue-collar districts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and the poor sides of Manhattan, at work on “Funny Animals” and funnier looking superheroes with the occasional super-heroine. Reader, you may ask what sort of mind is at work in tracking down Cat-Man (and Kitten), The Moth, or one who does not so nearly match his name, Phantasmo, Master of the World, a muscular, none too subtly erotic chap leaping into action against wrong-doers with a dramatically bare butt.

You might as well ask! Happily, the artist-editor who gave us such golden oldie reproductions as hundreds of pages of four-color reprints in The Complete Milt Gross: Comic Books and Life Story, explains his motivations in a recent interview. A keen but twisted intellect is at work here. As a kid, like almost any ordinary comic-reading kid (and in this respect, very much like your reviewer), he lavished attention upon Donald Duck and Little Lulu, intuitively grasping the genius of the art and narrative. At some point, after a natural progression through superhero comics and beyond them, he became obsessed with the “throw away medium” of comic books’ early days—particularly, the sense that something great had been done, evidently by way of artistic inattention. Comic books possessed no known educational or psychological intent, nor did artists and their assistants anticipate critical praise or a career boost. Nothing more than what Yoe calls the “verve and sense of motion” developed more or less spontaneously—no doubt also, a rush to the next deadline—can be understood here. But sometimes, it’s great.

Yoe is a serious scholar of the autodidact sort, although he also teaches courses at Syracuse University when he is not busy running his studio with his wife, Clizia Gussoni. The Complete Milt Gross is an homage to one of the greatest of Jewish (or any other) newspaper comic strip artists, as well as the accent-humor novelist of Nize Baby and other satirical material famed in the 1930s-40s. His introduction, an extended essay on Gross, is matched here by a careful annotation of Weird Hero comics, with humorous remarks on the side, like a cup of olives with the borsht. He has found amazing details about forgotten artists’ careers, such as the studios where they worked and the characters they created.

Pressured with thinking up new characters, new plots, and some way to convince the boss that the latest idea was great or at least better than other ideas floating around, they went wild with their imaginations. Hence super-weird heroes.  The genius is not in the plot line. The protagonist does not fail to get the bad guy engaged in mayhem, sometimes murder, by the final page. All that is as rote-standard as the happy ending.

Rather, their heroes, perversely unique in superpowers, must also be perversely unique in looks and behavior. Kismet, Man of Fate is America’s, if not the world’s, only Muslim superhero of the 1940s and he has a turban to prove it (one of the few women comics writers of the day, the half-Jewish Ruth Roche, seems to have done the script; she was known for lurid tales, occasionally with lesbian themes, written under assorted pseudonyms). The Green Turtle much resembles his name, leading patriotic Chinese Partisans against the Japanese invaders and perhaps (this is the reviewer’s imagination at work) hinting at the day when the Red Army will make The Revolution. The Black Cobra and the Cobra Kid, in costume snake-like themselves, whirl their large reptilian assistant around the necks of the evildoers, lasso-like. Bullet Girl and Bullet Man, with matching bullet headwear, conquer America’s foes after they settle a domestic dispute (“I hate you, Bullet-Man!” But she forgives when he apologizes).

It’s fun to revisit the days when patent medicine “Hadacol,” a supposed vitamin supplement available at all drug counters as good for children, was pitched to kids through Captain Hadacol. “Taken in half a glass of water,” it provides superpowers (a Letters Page offers testimonials on its real-life uses: it restores appetite and ambition). And there’s just as much fun when Yellowjacket, dressed for the part, downs villains with his own swarm of bees (never mind that, as Yoe notes, yellow jackets are actually wasps; factual consistency counts for nothing here).

The Spider Widow (“Wealthy and beautiful member of society” when not fighting crime), Nature Boy (Master of Wind, Rain and Fire), Hydro Boy (he, too, works wonders with water), Madam Fatal (a hero in drag), and Bronze Man (who looks African-American and is drawn by a rare non-white comic artist) are too charming to be brushed aside as mere pop culture trivia. Or are they?

Some of the artists lived long and productive lives. Many of them, working frantically since their teenage years, went on living at home with parents, becoming “the young folks in the basement” so complained about in our own time. From anecdotal evidence, they did not have much time outside their work anyway, but later in life, they spent their time drinking and being generally depressive. Their work was their life, and by the middle 1950s, with the sharp decline of comics, their careers often ended. Some were fortunate enough to get into advertising, especially if they were or could pretend successfully to be Gentiles. Comics history records the handful of greats, like Carl Barks, Bob Kane (of Batman) and, of course, Will Eisner. The others, like their work, remain to be rediscovered.

 

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Paul Buhle resumed publishing comics in 2005, after an inexplicable lapse of 36 years. His latest, scripted and drawn by Seth Tobocman, is Len, the life of Leonard Weinglass.


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